In conversation with Rebecca La-Touche, Head of Philanthropy at the International Rescue Committee.

Over the past 80 years, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has developed unparalleled expertise in responding to emergencies and helping uprooted communities to rebuild. Founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, the IRC offers lifesaving care and life-changing assistance to refugees forced to flee from war or disaster.

The International Rescue Committee UK is part of the IRC global network, which has its headquarters in New York and London. The IRC is on the ground in more than 40 countries, providing emergency relief, relocating refugees and rebuilding lives in the wake of disaster. Through 22 regional offices in cities across the United States, the IRC also helps refugees resettle in the US and become self-sufficient.

Rebecca La-Touche is a highly experienced major donor fundraising professional with a background in international development and humanitarian fundraising. She has been Head of Philanthropy at the IRC since the beginning of 2020, and with the charity for the last two and a half years. Rebecca has spent that last nine years working for a range of high-profile charities including: ActionAid, Lumos, British Red Cross and IRC – leading successful teams and securing gifts from high-net-worth individuals at major and principal gift level.

How did you meet people – was it on Zoom, Microsoft Teams or phone calls? Which worked best and why?

We found that a mixture of approaches works best and, as with normal times, some donors with still have a preference. In general, donors are being more responsive to email, which has been very useful for us, particularly given some of our donors would be travelling a lot ordinarily.

Phone calls have been effective, as have smaller meetings. The benefit of phone calls is you can have your notes in front of you, but it’s harder to build rapport. We learnt quite quickly that donors become “Zoomed out” given the pressures on them at work, and that Zoom is not a replacement for face-to-face meetings.

We’ve had to work within the restrictions and so Zoom and MS Teams have worked well for larger meetings and events. The International Rescue Committee is unique in that they run global events, so supporters can access and benefit from international events which works well for fundraising and cultivation.

Using experts to provide unique insight has worked well too. We’ve run Webinars on our innovation work which were well attended and received excellent feedback.

If you’re going to use Zoom or MS Teams, think about the structure of the meeting. We found it was very powerful to have the meeting curated by an existing supporter. This was considerably more effective than just having questions at the end and made the event peer-led. See if you can think of a donor who would be great in this capacity, as it’s a fantastic engagement tool if you get it right.

How have you found major donor fundraising in 2020?

Stewardship is always vitally important, but none more so than now. We have found new business has been particularly difficult, even with our COVID-19 response work. Donors are sticking to the relationships they have and, in general, have been less open to new ones; but there are opportunities.

It’s vitally important for fundraisers to remember donors’ personal circumstances, both family and professional, and being respectful and sympathetic to that. Some donors may have paused giving, or sitting tight, and it’s our job to continue that relationship until a time when they’re ready to give again.

Effective stewardship can involve looking at external 3rd party events. Our donors have been really interested in hearing from senior stakeholders in particular.

Who was involved in the calls – senior stakeholders/ CEO/trustees? If so, did getting senior leadership on board help?

At the IRC, we’re fortunate to have a very high profile CEO who understands the importance of fundraising and is happy to get his hands dirty. Senior stakeholder involvement can help with attendance at events, but it’s important to note that cultivation still sits with the fundraising team. Consider how you can use your senior stakeholders most effectively – for example in an ask meeting – and think about who else in your organisation could effectively represent your work. For example, we use programme experts.

If you don’t have access to a senior stakeholder (or they’re not the right one), your subject matter must be spot on. Can you involve beneficiaries? People who run the services, or an inspiring Trustee or existing donor?

What was best time to engage donors? Are there any patterns?

It’s best to avoid evenings when people are finishing work and spending time with family. Anything from 3-5pm is ideal, but definitely nothing past 6pm.

Any top tips to engage donors?

It comes back to presenting something authentic, different, and original. Think about your strengths and build from there.

Remember that patience is a virtue! Donors are people as well, and will get fed up of events online, so be ready to mix it up. Look after your donors and make them feel part of something. Listen to what they have to say by asking them to participate in a donor survey. Draft a maximum of 20 questions across a range of different subjects and seek their opinion. It will be an eye opening experience for you and will build even greater engagement – especially if you implement the findings properly. Good luck!

Rebecca was in discussion with Simon Callaghan, Director – Fundraising Appointments at Peridot Partners, an executive search agency. Simon can be contacted on simon@peridotpartners.co.uk.